Football

Finals, World Cup Stars, & Machine Guns: Experiences Of Irish Players On The Continent

Finals, World Cup Stars, & Machine Guns: Experiences Of Irish Players On The Continent

There is an established path that talented young Irish footballers take. They start out in youth teams in Ireland, before they are spotted by scouts from British clubs. Many make the move at 16-years old, and while some may wait a bit longer before leaving these shores, the vast majority of those who do end up in England or Scotland.

That may be quickly changing. One of the knock-on effects of Brexit is that Irish players will no longer be able to move to the UK before their 18th birthday. Some will wait that long before making the move, while other may cast their gaze a bit further to the continent.

It is the latter of those options that is the most intriguing. Our footballing history has been intrinsically linked with that of Britain, with few venturing further into Europe in search of opportunities.

If we are to develop further as a footballing nation in our own right, seeing more of our players move further afield could only be of benefit.

While it has not happened often, some Irish players have made the move to Europe. It happened with more regularity in the 80s and 90s, with some of our internationals moving to the continent towards the end of their careers.

Now, we are hoping to see younger players follow that path, as Jack Byrne recently signing for Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia. Padraig Amond was perhaps a trailblazer in this regard.

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Amond was tearing up the League of Ireland back in 2010, banging in a huge number of goals for Sligo Rovers as a 22-year old. Many expected he would get an opportunity to move to England at the end of the campaign, but few thought he would end in Portugal midway through the domestic season.

Speaking to Balls, he explained how his move to Paços de Ferreira materialised.

At the time I was living up in Sligo with Mauro Almeida, a Portuguese player that was playing with us.

We were sitting down watching TV one night and chatting away about football. Going across the water to England and playing a high level was an ambition of mine, he asked if I would ever play abroad in somewhere apart from England. It was just a throwaway comment, but I said 'of course I would'...

We just had that conversation, then Mauro got injured and went back to Portugal for a while.

The day we played Shamrock Rovers in the League Cup semi-final, he came back over to finish his rehab with us. He told me ‘there’s a fella from a Portuguese club coming over to look at you today’.

I genuinely knew nothing about it, I hadn’t spoke to anybody about it. I played against Rovers and scored two, by that evening there was a bid after going in for me.

Amond admits that he had never even heard of his potential new club when this opportunity came knocking. However, after sitting down the following evening to watch them beat Sporting Lisbon, he quickly realised that they were a serious outfit.

With Paços willing to stump up a fee for him, and English clubs likely to only offer a trial, the Carlow native said it was ultimately an easy decision to make.

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That wasn't to say the adjustment period was seamless. Many would expect the language barrier to be an issue, but the club ensured Amond was comfortable in that aspect. Instead it was the heat that initially concerned him. Having arrived at Portugal in late August, he certainly wasn't dressed for the weather.

The initial period when I moved over was kind of tough. That wasn’t down to moving away from home, it was actually because of the heat. I

was doing the normal thing of train, then lunch, train, and have dinner afterwards. It was quite tough and I moved over at the height of the heat.

I remember I left Dublin airport and I was wearing jeans and a cardigan because it was cold. I got to Portugal and got off the plane and it was 40 degrees.

One of the advantages of moving to the UK is the similarities in language, weather and culture. While there are never any guarantees in the world of football, you can get some level of certainty as to what you environment away from the field of play will be.

That may not always be the case elsewhere, as Darren O'Dea will attest to.

O'Dea originally moved to Celtic after leaving Ireland, but his career would take in stops in Canada, India, and the Ukraine. It is in the latter of those locations that he would put into some mad situations.

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Speaking to Balls a few years ago, he recalled how he was held at gunpoint by the Russia army whilst travelling with Metalurh Donetsk to a game in Crimea, a territory in the Ukraine which is also claimed by the Russians.

There was - if you like - a 'fake' Russian border set up by men in balaclavas and machine-guns when we arrived, and they wouldn't allow our foreign players - as in myself - across this border without Visas.

But we were on our way for a Ukrainian Premier League match, so we were stuck at a border for four or five hours.

Eventually we did get through, I think the Russian Embassy - it was mental - everyone was involved before we played the game. And, obviously, we got out of there as quickly as possible...

We're obviously going to a game the next day, and you're hydrating and drinking plenty of water because you're travelling a lot. So naturally you needed the toilet.

We weren't allowed off the bus. I got the hump a bit and said to the lads, 'Come on, we'll go over [to the toilet]'. There was a porta-cabin across the road with a toilet in it. So I went to walk over with four or five of the lads.

Next thing you know, there's Russian army soldiers pointing machine-guns at us, running at us, shouting.

Obviously I couldn't understand exactly what they were saying. The Russian lads that were with us scarpered quickly enough, but the foreign lads - we didn't know what they were saying. All I saw was a machine-gun in my face!

While O'Dea's career took him to an active war zone, Padraig Amond did not quite have same issue living in a small commuter town a half hour drive east of Porto.

That isn't to say it wasn't a different way of living. Having spent his entire playing career in the League of Ireland up to that point, he found it hard to believe just how much everyday life was dominated by football in Portugal.

We have passionate supporters in Ireland and there are passionate supporters in England, but I’ve never seen anything like what it was over there. It was unbelievable.

The first thing I saw was when we played Benfica away.  It was a full house and it was just unbelievable to play in it…

Porto was the closest one to us so there were a lot of Porto fans. You support one of three teams over there, Benfica, Porto, or Sporting Lisbon. Their days were built around when there was football on.

You could be walking around and you might not know there was a game, but if Porto scored a goal you would know because you would hear the shouts from supporters in the bars watching the game.

It’s frightening, the passion they have for it all is something I had never seen before. They live and breath every moment.

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Amond's time in Portugal would only last one season, but he enjoyed it immensely.

While he struggled to get into the team ahead of Nélson Oliveira, who would play in Euro 2012 with Portugal at the end of the following season, he did help the club a seventh place finish in the league and a Portuguese League Cup final appearance.

He also felt it brought him to the next level as a player, coming against top class opposition such as James Rodriguez, Hulk, and David Luiz on a weekly basis.

While every experience differs, one common theme is that players seem to enjoy moving to somewhere they are unfamiliar with. It tests them as a player and a person, with moving outside your comfort zone is often what is needed to improve.

Connor Ronan has certainly been open to taking the road less travelled, spending time on loan at a number of clubs on the continent. He spoke to Balls while playing in Slovakia in 2019, saying that he would recommend any player to give it a shot.

When I first went out there, the main focus was to just get back playing. I was in and out of a lot of teams. I just wanted that experience of playing first-team football and just getting into that run of nine or ten games. I got that straight away, got into the team and I haven't come out since.

That was a massive part in me going back out there. Maybe I could have risked going elsewhere but I just wanted to keep that momentum going and keep playing.

I had two loans in League One which I wouldn't say were unsuccessful but weren't as successful as I would have liked. For that next step in my career, I wanted to be playing every week.

I think everyone's path is different. If it's suited to your style of play and you think it's right for you, don't turn it down just because it's abroad - take it in your stride and take the risk.

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He has since moved to Swiss club Grasshopper Club Zürich and has continued to thrive. O'Dea described his experience in the Ukraine as a 'fantastic experience' despite its challenges, a sentiment echoed by Padraig Amond.

The current Newport County striker thinks more Irish players moving abroad could only benefit football in this country, with the example set by Jack Byrne one that more should follow.

I think it’s great that some Irish player have taken that step in going away, with Jack Byrne being the latest one moving to Cyprus.

Jack has been to England, he’s been in Holland, he’s been in Ireland, so he knows what’s best for him. I think it’s a great move for him to go to Cyprus.

Maybe we’ve been a little bit ignorant of the level of the club he is playing for, but they’ve been in Europe basically every year for the last 15 years. He’s playing for an unbelievably big club in that country who are a very decent team.

I hope more players do it, especially with the style of football Stephen Kenny is trying to bring in with the international team. It would suit us better in the long-term.

It's difficult to argue with that assessment.

Irish players have usually chosen what they feel to be the safe option in moving to the UK, but it doesn't always work out that way. More of our players venturing further abroad can only be of benefit to the health of our international team.

SEE ALSO: Who Will Start At Centre Back For Ireland In World Cup Qualifying Opener?

Gary Connaughton

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